Of the three influences on early American cooking – Native American, European, and African – Native Americans deserve far more credit, for one thing, than just for their expertise on corn. Thanks to that knowledge, Europeans and others became rather adept at manipulating corn and cornmeal, and other ingredients, in order to stay alive in the New World. The school of hard knocks has always been a great teacher in the American kitchen, essentially the kitchen of exiles from the very first moment of landfall.
There’s a lot of ground yet to be covered on the topic of Native American cooking prior to European contact. That’s not to say that there has been no teasing out of the influences of the First Peoples on American cooking, but it’s not as discussed as are other potential influences. If you look at the botanical cornucopia of the New World, it becomes clear that Native Americans possessed a most impressive larder, far greater than certain parts of the world. It’s time to focus a bit more on the complexity and the nuances, as well as the fact that not all Native Americans depended upon corn for their subsistence, a case in point being the whaling cultures of the Northwest Coast and the Plain tribes. This is where archaeology becomes every bit as important as written documentation, as well as instrumental in discounting certain legends and myths.* Remember, too, that corn really did not appear in North America’s eastern seaboard until around 800 – 1000 C.E. That suggests that Native Americans who met the first English colonists spent around 600 years or so perfecting their culinary techniques, even though corn obviously existed for a long time prior to that in Mexico.**
So, if corn turned out to be just one aspect of Native American foodways, what might have been others?
Today, I’m taking a quick look at pemmican, of which most American school children heard, on their way to a high school diploma.
Based on a Cree (Algonquian) word – pimîhkân, pemmican was every bit as much a survival food as were ship’s biscuits, which we have been discussing in recent posts. So important did pemmican become that the Hudson Bay Company*** contracted with Native Americans to provide pemmican for its fur trappers and others. The added advantage to pemmican lies in its nutritional value, including as it does protein from dried meat, fat (for energy), and vitamins and/or minerals from dried berries (depending upon which ones were used). By dousing the meat and berries with melted fat, it was possible to keep the food for a long time, in a manner similar to the potting of meat as practiced in Europe.
One of the best visual resources on early American culinary life, in my opinion, is the work being done by Jas. Townsend & Son, Inc. The following video shows how to make pemmican. Mr. Townsend documents his work and refers to his culinary sources as well. Note that the following video is the first of a four-part series on pemmican. If you go to this video, you will see a list of others of Mr. Townsend’s videos available, as well as links to his Web site.
*As a teenager, I once worked as a cook’s helper on an archaeological dig on the coast of Washington. Corn was not part of the scene of the Makah peoples.
**”Corn” was an English word for grains, and so the more correct term to look for is “maize” or “Indian corn.”
***Be sure to read this booklet!
© 2016 C. Bertelsen